Today, we gather here at the altar on a Feast Day in our Church – The Feast of a Maximillian Kolbe. This is a man who was born in 1894 in what is now Poland to a Polish mother and a German father. When the Second World War began, Fr. Maximillian Kolbe lived in a Polish monastery as a Franciscan and organized a hospital to help with the injured.
In 1939, the German authorities imprisoned him for months to get him to sign the German People’s List. A signature would have given him claim to his German heritage at a time when that privilege meant life, concretely. He refused to sign the paper. He refused to claim that heritage.
His monastery sheltered refugees from Poland including many Jewish people. The monastery also served as a publishing house for anti-Nazi German publications. He and his brethren welcomed people into what safety they could provide. They spoke out, with a turned-up volume, about the crimes and the sin of racism that were marching in.
And though Holocaust scholars denounce the claims that Fr. Kolbe himself was anti-Semitic, there are moments in his writing where he was not free from the sin of racism, himself. Even saints must do the work.
When the German authorities shut down the monastery in February of 1941, Fr. Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz.
Five months later, when a prisoner escaped the camp the deputy camp commander created a punishment that was meant as a deterrent for all. He selected ten men to starve to death in an underground bunker. Fr. Kolbe was not one of the selected, but when he heard the cries of one who was – he volunteered to take his place. What we know to have happened next is that he ministered to the other nine starving men for two weeks. After three weeks, starved and dehydrated, he held on to life until the fatal injection of carbolic acid had to be administered to kill him.
It was on this day in 1941 that Fr. Kolbe died in Auschwitz. We mark his life as a Church today and look to it as an example.
I couldn’t help but think of how much his story reminds me a lot of the stories and ideas and thoughtful sharings that we have born witness to these past two days at the Teach-In.
His story reminds me of the work we set out to do in taking responsibility for anti-racism. Where do we find ourselves in this story?
When are we called to sign our name to a heritage of racism – maybe less concretely than the German People’s List? Maybe not. Do we refuse our signature?
When do we create sacred space of safety for others (like his monastic shelter) and when are we white people open to that space not always feeling safe for our own comfort?
When do we get the message out in print or at least in public that we are anti-racist and what that means and what work that requires?
How am I racist? What are ways that I tend to overlook it, like we do with Fr. Kolbe’s writings?
And where do we see ourselves in the story of his last three weeks? How do I step in, put my hand on the pole to stop electrocution? How am I present to the other folks doing the work or feeling the suffering or both?
This liturgy offers us a chance to contemplate the life of this saint as a point of reflection. This reflection is enhanced by the scripture chosen.
We heard in the first reading, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.”
This scripture frees me to ask, “Where is my complicity in wearing the boot that presses on the neck of my brothers and sisters of color? How is that hate in me? I don’t have life – we don’t have life if that boot remains. We don’t know Love with a capitol L if that boot remains. Where is my work to remove that boot?”
I pray. Life depends on the answers to these questions. My life, if it is to be free, depends on this work.
And so, when in the Gospel we hear, no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. We must ask, “What part of my own life must die so that I might be part of real human freedom?”
We gather at this altar today to remember the suffering and resurrection of Christ. The Death that he suffered to bring us real freedom. We seek in his True and Divine Love an example, like Fr. Kolbe’s, for how to seek Truth and Love ourselves.
Today, I pray to open my heart for the courage to keep it broken.